Tom Still On High Skilled Immigration Policy

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Tom Still On High Skilled Immigration Policy

Premiere Date: 
July 18, 2014

Wisconsin Technology Council's president pushes reforms that keep high skilled labor here.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Meanwhile, with the issue of immigration coming into sharp humanitarian focus as children pour into the US, reportedly fleeing violence in Central America, one group has been working toward reform to allow the best and brightest to remain in our country.

Forward.us was started by leaders in the tech industry, people like the CEO of Facebook and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Their aim?   To “promote policies to keep the United States and its citizens competitive in a global economy.” But according to our next guest, it's not just Silicon Valley that needs to hold on to highly-trained foreign-born workers. Wisconsin too, could use their skills and talent. Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and advocates for immigration reform. Tom, thanks for being here.

Tom Still:

Glad to be here.

Frederica Freyberg:

Specifically, what would you like to see to allow more of these highly trained foreign workers to stay in the US?

Tom Still:

I think specific things that would work nationally, and of course here in Wisconsin as well, would be more green cards, in essence permanent residency status for foreign-born students who earn master's or doctoral degrees, and especially in those fields like science, engineering, technology where there's a proven need. That's one piece. Consider a start-up visa for the same types of grads who want to stay here and start a business, rather than going home and starting a business there where they would compete against us. And then third, there are caps right now on a particular type of visa called the H-1B which is for high-end jobs and immigrants and foreign-born workers, and that cap is a bit artificial and that should be lifted as well.

Frederica Freyberg:

You recently wrote about a man from Lebanon with a UW Ph.D. who had to move to Washington state for work even though he wanted to stay in Wisconsin. Why couldn't he stay here?

Tom Still:

Well, there's always things about the talent mix and how that matches up with the companies that are here. But he really felt that in this case he had to be someplace where he was more likely to gain that kind of status, one of the three that I just mentioned, because of the connections of that company in terms of trying to make that work. So, you know, it seems like a lot of the immigrant talent tends to cluster on the coast, in part because they're more likely to find avenues and pathways there through companies that can help them stay.

Frederica Freyberg:

So is it the company then that has to somehow sign on to that particular foreign-born worker and assure their employment or even put up money to keep them here? Is that it?

Tom Still:

Yeah, a lot of times it really is that. Demonstrating the need, being able to go that extra mile, both in financial support and the paperwork, the legalities involved, to try to make it happen.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, if we keep these foreign-born workers, though, aren't we pushing American workers out of those jobs?

Tom Still:

I don't think so, and a couple of reasons for that. The United States, while once a leader in producing science and engineering grads on a per capita basis around the world, has really-- That has really dramatically reduced over time to the point now where we're well down the list in terms of the number of grads we produce in those critical fields. So there's a need there. And also a number of in the studies, the Sullivan Report that actually went to Governor Scott Walker, mentioned the fact that there's all kinds of body of evidence that they don't take jobs away. And that's really especially true at the high end. There are some demonstrated needs that you can see right here in Wisconsin. And then we have our own demographic issues. We have an aging work force. We look much less global than even our neighbors, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, so attracting those kinds of workers makes sense here.

Frederica Freyberg:

Isn't that kind of immigration reform towards keeping these kind of foreign-born workers, though, kind of the short-term fix, and the long-term fix would be growing and educating more of our own in these stem fields?

Tom Still:

Oh, absolutely, and there's been a lot of progress there. The long-term fix will indeed be that. In fact, if you look at the UW-Madison College of Engineering, for example, a huge enrollment burst right now of kids who are trying to earn an engineering degree. The demand is there. I think that message is starting to get out. Meantime, though, there are certain highly-skilled individuals, many of whom are foreign-born, that are going to fit some of the shorter-term needs we have here. It's pretty well demonstrated.

Frederica Freyberg:

How critical is this all towards growing Wisconsin's knowledge-based economy?  

Tom Still:

Yeah, I think again because of demographics, aging work force, because of what the statistics show about foreign-born workers and their propensity to start businesses. They're four times more likely than native-born Americans to start a business. So if we lag compared to our states in terms of having those kinds of individuals, guess what? We're probably going to continue to lag in terms of start-up businesses. And finally, in a global economy, we're going to need more people who understand what it is to live and work globally. And so I think having those kinds of people as a part of our work force are really going to help us move ahead.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. Tom Still, thanks for being here.

Tom Still:

Thanks for having me. 


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